Will COVID-19 surge in pet food, other e-commerce last?

More people, including pet food buyers, have been using digital channels during the pandemic, but the surge is not completely positive or guaranteed to last.

Andrea Piacquadio | Pexels.com
Andrea Piacquadio | Pexels.com

Well before the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted every aspect of life and business as we know them, e-commerce was enacting its own form of disruption, including in the pet food market. Over the last few months, with most people around the world quarantined or sheltering at home, online purchasing in every category has soared, and some experts are projecting that new shoppers to the channel may decide to stick with it because of convenience, pricing, ongoing concern over COVID-19 or some combination thereof.

A new report, however, casts some doubt on that theory. It’s still early days, but “Digital Shopping Behaviors During COVID-19, March 2020,” a data brief from Quantum Metric, a continuous design firm, shows that the surge in e-commerce could also be bringing along some threats and problems to online retailers.

E-commerce struggles and friction for new customers

Collected via its platform, according to Quantum Metric, the data come from a sample of 32 million online browsing sessions on “broad-category retail sites” in March 2020; for comparison, the firm also looked at 50 million browsing sessions from March 2019.

Year over year (YOY), mobile shopping in March 2020 increased 56%, while desktop grew 52% compared to March 2019, which saw 35% and 43% YOY increases, respectively, over 2018. The difference between growth rates in mobile between the two years indicate that during pandemic-related shutdowns and panic buying this year, people particularly flocked to shopping on their phones.

That’s the good news. “Unfortunately, a surge of new visitors has also resulted in a surge of customer struggle and friction,” the report reads. “Cart abandonment, frustration rates and error rates were all much higher this March compared to last March.” Specifically, new customers abandoned their online shopping carts 62% more, experienced 52% higher frustration and 12% more errors. “This may result from a lack of inventory, new visitors to sites not optimized for digital conversions or the negative impact of peak traffic on performance,” according to Quantum Metric.

In addition, the data suggest that online shoppers are adopting more of what Quantum Metric calls “goal-oriented behaviors,” such as searching (up 11% YOY) vs. simply navigating through a site (down 31%). It also includes making purchasing choices faster, which Quantum measured by tracking the average product views before adding a product to the cart and the average product hits per search; both declined YOY, by 47% and 6% respectively, indicating quicker decisions. Another behavior to look at is average time to complete checkout; that decreased from 13 minutes to eight on desktops and from nine minutes to six on mobile.

The bottom line? Average order values are lower, at just over US$70 compared to over US$100 in 2019. “This reflects the current customer tendency to shop more frequently but for fewer items, which is akin to making quick trips to the grocery store,” the report concludes, recommending that online retailers focus on search, personalization, cross-selling and new visitor journeys, while optimizing for fast shopping and identifying performance impact.

Pet food e-commerce surge: timeline uncertain

It makes sense that the surge in online shopping during the pandemic has mimicked quick trips to brick-and-mortar retailers, at least generally. But what about pet food specifically? While the Quantum Metric report does not break down online purchasing behavior by category, we can look to other recent data for how much pet food sales have been occurring online, as well as how many more pet owners are buying their pets’ food through digital channels.

Online sales of pet food in the U.S. soared 77% in March 2020 YOY, said Sean Simpson, associate client director of the pet vertical for Nielsen, during a Petfood Industry webinar. In just one month, from February to March 2020, online pet food sales jumped US$281 million, more than 51%. Subscription purchases of pet food also increased 28% from February to March; it’s too early to know if those gains will continue as more areas start to open up from lockdowns and quarantines.

More recent pet food e-commerce data is available from Packaged Facts. Through a survey of U.S. pet owners in late April/early May, the research firm found that nearly half reported purchasing pet food digitally within the past three months, either on an e-commerce site or via an app.

Though app shopping is still low for pet foods – 18% for dog owners, 15% for cat owners in the last three months – that percentage seems to be rising, consistent with Quantum Metric’s data on mobile e-commerce overall. With pet owners, David Sprinkle, publisher and research director for Packaged Facts, speculated that the increased use of apps could signify a “gradual and generationally driven changing of the guard.”

Another interesting finding from the Packaged Facts survey is that people who purchased higher-priced pet food, particularly dog food, tend to be more likely to purchase online. Among the nearly 600 dog owner respondents, 10% said they buy dog foods priced “significantly higher” than average and 30% buy somewhat higher-priced dog foods, according to Sprinkle. Of those dog owners, the percentage purchasing their dog food in a brick-and-mortar store declined from 72% in the last 12 months to 52% in the last three.

The difference seems to be made up by more digital shopping, either through a website or app for home delivery or store pickup. In contrast, the percentage of these dog owners purchasing their dog food from a veterinarian has declined in the last three months vs. the last 12 months.


View our continuing coverage of the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic.





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